Sunday, August 14, 2016

Finding Our Food Footing

This is the story of how, on a rainy night in the Japanese Alps, we came to eat the worst meal of our whole trip: a train station fast food burger from the Mos Burger chain.
One of the things David was looking forward to in Japan was the cuisine.  Lana was a little apprehensive about it, as she’s not a big fan of fish, especially raw fish, or things that have been cooked but are served cold. All things heavily represented in Japanese cuisine.  We also knew that we could not expect an English description of dishes or ingredients, and that generally, things come exactly as they’re traditionally made. Substitutions are not really an option.  The very polite staff may smile and nod to your “no this/no that” request and then the dish will come out exactly as the cook always makes that dish.  We can respect that.  We also knew, from previous experience using translation dictionaries, that menus often contain specialized vocabulary that’s not in a common dictionary.  We knew there would be challenges, and we didn’t even know all of them yet. 
Breakfasts were easy for us.  When it was included with our lodging, it generally had both Western and Eastern traditional breakfasts.  We are grain, dairy, and fruit breakfasters, and always had excellent choices.  The Eastern buffet was always interesting to survey, but not our speed.  There’d generally be a seaweed soup, fairly strong-smelling fish, rice, often congee, salad, and one or more noodle and vegetable dishes.  One of the more extensive buffets we encountered has those in order, roughly, from left to right, below. This photo doesn’t include the salad bar, yogurt and fruit bar, or any of the other Western dishes (including an omelet bar) that were also available.
Lunch was the first meal that we had to seek out on our own in Tokyo.  After we walked around the north side of Edo Castle, we were getting hungry, and we were pretty close to Tokyo Station.  We thought we’d have a lot of choices, and we weren’t wrong, but we were not in a particularly touristy area, and we were not seeing any English menus.  Fortunately, most menus are accompanied by pictures.  We were rapidly approaching hangry, and decided that the set meal pictured outside this soba noodle restaurant looked good, so David took a picture of the item, and we dove in.
The staff spoke roughly as much English as we spoke Japanese; basically pleasantries.  A suited gentleman approached to take our order, and looked apprehensive until I showed them the picture I’d taken, and he immediately looked relieved.  He held up two fingers, and we responded “hai, gozumas” (yes, thank you—though at this point I don’t think we had the proper termination for thanks).  I also asked for mizu—water, and very quickly we were presented with the lovely assortment below.

We recognized everything except for the creamy dish in the lower center.  The waiter noticed, and went back to the kitchen, and came out again with his phone, and two English words: cinnamon vine (looking it up later, it’s grated tororo yam, a side dish that can be eaten on its own or added to noodles).  At the time, we didn’t feel much more informed, and mostly ate around it. Our proddings with a chopstick revealed a gelatinous texture that can best be described as mucilaginous.  The noodle broth was made with kelp, which was a recurring theme.  David loved it, so much so that he ate about half of Lana’s—she’s not a fan of that meaty/savory kelp flavor.  Lunch wasn’t an utter failure, but certainly wasn’t a stunning success either, at least from Lana’s perspective.  After some more exploration of Tokyo, we returned to our hotel; the landmark for our street was the prominent Mr. Donut sign at the corner.  We couldn’t just walk past that.
We spent some time researching a place for dinner, given our experience with simply trying to find something by roaming.  We ended up relying on information from Gurunavi, one of the apps we’d loaded for the trip.  It allows you to display food in a specific area (including nearby), and with various options, like English menus, non-smoking, food type, etc.  Lana picked a yakitori restaurant named To-Ho Kenbunroku that was within walking distance.  We were also able to locate it in, and place a pin, which helped tremendously.  This was the second major challenge we discovered: picking a restaurant is very different from locating it, especially in Tokyo, where the restaurant is almost certainly one or more stories above street level, so you can’t see it directly, and all the signage for it is in Kanji, which we cannot read.  Unless you can find precise directions in English, or you can locate the English version of its name on a mapping app, you’re setting yourself up for hungry frustration.  As it was, even with a specific map location, we just gambled and started walking up the stairs until we reached a floor that had a menu that looked like what we’d read about.  We took off our shoes, and placed them in a locker, and left the key at the cashier, then followed someone to our table.  It was an izakaya, a Japanese pub, and one of the few places where smoking is still common in a restaurant (at least that we experienced).  Beer, smoke, and fried food.  Pretty good, except the smoke.  We ordered iron plate dumplings, and chicken and meatball skewers.
Dumplings above, skewers below.  Both excellent.  The skewers came with a side of salt and lemon wedge, which was a very nice addition.  We polished everything off quickly, and ordered another round of skewers, which didn’t arrive; we caught a passing waiter’s attention, and she looked up our order on the table-side electronic tablet, turned to us and said “5 minutes.”  In about that long, a second round of skewers arrived, accompanied by more dumplings—not sure what happened, but we didn’t let it go to waste.  We inhaled that, and as the entire neighboring booth had just started smoking, we took our check up to the cashier, retrieved our shoes, and stepped out into some clean air. On our walk back to the hotel we filled in the corners with some dessert crepes on the street.  Good food, but not an unqualified success.
The next day we left Tokyo by train and headed down to the Mt. Fuji area, which we decided was a better place to pick up a rental car. This made our lunches a little more flexible.  We’d find a grocery near lunch time, get the fixings for a picnic lunch, drive on, and eat somewhere pretty—one of our favorite modes of travel.  We found lots of different types of ham, and generally some good bread for sandwiches, as well as beautiful fruit and chips. This meant Lana was getting at least two square meals a day before having to roll the dice on the third.  There’s a limited amount of both time and energy for researching and locating meals, and this took a load off both of us for several days.
In Fujiyoshida, Lana did some Tripadvisoring and found Kosaku, a local noodle house which specialized in a hearty country stew called houtou.  It had low tables and a rush mat floor.  We were seated in what we think is the Westerner section (thank goodness), which had a recessed area under the table for your legs, so we could sit down without kneeling.  There was also a large, very pretty piece of wood bookending our table but not present on the traditional tables—we’re not sure, but maybe this is to hide the tourists and their boorish habits from the locals?
They had a menu with English labels, though as you can see, that still leaves a lot to the imagination.  We got mushroom houtou, boar houtou, and tempura (flip side of the menu), as well as beer and oolong tea (which came in a bottle, cold).  It was colder in the mountains, and the soup was welcome! 
The mushroom had a fair amount of pumpkin—which was kabucha squash.  We both agreed that the mushroom houtou had an odd flavor, but the bowls were huge (both came in a cast iron pot) and the boar houtou and tempura were more than enough to fill us up. Each bowl came with a ladle rather than a spoon, and it took some discreet observation of our neighbors to figure out exactly how to eat. The noodles were enormous and very chewy.
At the conbini (what Japanese call a convenience store) next to our hotel, we encountered the Morinaga bar for the first time; it quickly became a staple.  It’s a brilliant hybrid of an ice cream sandwich and cone.  The ice cream is encased in a waffle-shaped cake cone, the inside of which is coated in chocolate. Not only is it delicious, but it’s a well-engineered treat--it does not become soggy as the ice cream melts.  The bars snap nicely in half as well, which is useful when you get one with vanilla ice cream and one with chocolate so you can share.
This became our dessert of choice.  Dessert didn’t seem to be something eaten restaurants, that we could tell, at least.  That’s not because there’s no market for dessert—every convenience store we visited had a well-stocked freezer of ice cream treats, among other sweets in nearby aisles, like cookies (we tried the pandas—excellent; we passed on the “American” cookies).
Our typical breakfast, when it wasn’t included with the room, was a variant of this Calbee brand granola which we found throughout the country; seeds, nuts, puffed grains, and some baked grains.  Quite good, mixed with yoghurt that we were able to pick up at grocery stores or conbini which are pretty much everywhere.  By this point .
By the time we got to Matsumoto, we were feeling pretty confident in our hunter-gatherer-diner skills, feeling cocky with our ability to navigate a grocery store and find ourselves some dinner. Of course this made our food failure imminent.  Looking back at it, we started out at a disadvantage; it was already late when we got to the hotel, and we left without any research, thinking we’d save time and find a place to eat dinner as easily as we had the previous night.  Then it started raining.
We even had a map we got from the hotel, with place names in English and Japanese. But one or two of the recommended ones were closed, and there were a couple of ones that we couldn’t find. After a while we just started looking at menus posted outside of various restaurants, none of which allayed our anxieties about what lay within (there were a lot skewers of things like chicken cartilage and beef innards as well as horse sashimi). After our food map started to disintegrate in the rain, and hanger was becoming evident, we decided to cut our losses and just grab something that we knew we could eat. Our choices then became McDonalds or a Japanese chain called Mos Burger. We figured that we should at least try the more local fast food chain, which while a defeat wasn’t as total and complete as eating at McDonald’s in one of the culinary destinations in the world.
We each ordered a cheeseburger—Lana got hers with a side salad and David got fries. We both managed to order the burgers without onions, which was the first of several times we would include the phrase “tamanegi nuki de kudasai.” The fast food salad was actually quite good, and not just for a fast food salad. Would we had just stuck to that.
The fries were actually pretty good too, but while the burgers came without onions, they did have a big blob of yellow mustard, which pretty much annihilates all surrounding flavors. And for as picky as Lana is about food, unfortunately it was a hangry David who lost it over the mustard. We let the situation get the better of us. We were tired, wet, and hangry. And the choice you make when you’re hangry is rarely the best choice. We would have been better off hunkering down at our hotel with a couple of Morinaga bars.  Oh well.  Live and learn.
The positive outcome of this episode is that we vowed it would not be repeated, and managed to use it as incentive to research a good option, or, when we couldn’t find it to take a risk rather than hemming and hawing about where to go.
We learned a few other standard things about dining in Japan in these first few days that ended up being essential to the rest of our trip.  When in an izakaya, the only way you’re going to get a waiter to come to your table is to ring the bell. Sometimes it takes a little searching to find it, as we found out on our first foray. But they’ll come immediately if you ring it. This isn’t true in other kinds of restaurants, but we think given the “another round of beers” raucous nature of the izakaya, it can be essential as it gets later and people get drunker. Once we figured out the system we liked it, but it took a little while.
Two of the other things we learned about eating in Japan really appealed to us from the get-go. First, there is no tipping in Japan, and having traveled to other places where that is also the norm, we really got used to it. Second, when you order in Japan, they write the ticket up and leave a copy at your table. If you ring the bell or wave down a waiter to order something more, they’ll add it to your ticket. When you’re done and ready to leave, you just take your ticket to a cashier and pay. No trying to get someone’s attention to get the bill, no waiting for change. Just get up and go. We got used to this model very quickly.  The only place it wasn’t like this was at ramen shops, where you order from and insert money into a machine outside the restaurant—but more on that later.
The upside to mistakes is that you can learn from them, and we definitely learned from this one.  Perhaps it even allowed us a greater appreciation of some of the truly amazing meals we had later in the trip, which we did not take for granted. We realized we had failed, drew a line under it, and after a Morinaga ice cream bar, picked ourselves up, brushed ourselves off and forged on the next day to greater success.  We still faced the same challenges, but with the specter of sad burger lingering, we took more risks, did more research, and it paid off—we had consistently excellent meals for the remainder of our trip